- Associated Press - Monday, June 12, 2017

MANKATO, Minn. (AP) - This isn’t a love story, but to really understand just how deeply Zanz Mexican Restaurant runs in the Otto family blood you need to hear this.

“I was on my hands and knees scrubbing the floor the first time I met him,” Marie Simmonds told the Mankato Free Press (https://bit.ly/2r7psp1 ).

She was scrubbing the floor because she was a young part-timer at what was then Zantigo Restaurant, and that’s what you do when you’re a part-timer at a fast food joint. You cook food, you take orders and, occasionally, you get on your hands and knees and scrub floors.

So that’s where she was when Rick Otto, the “him” in this scenario, a new assistant manager, came upon her that day, and definitely liked what he saw.

Still does.

But like we said, this isn’t a love story. That unusual meeting was just the launching pad. From there, they’d go on to get married, purchase that restaurant (and save it from becoming a Taco Bell) and run a successful family business for three decades, an anniversary that came earlier this month with the restaurant offering 30 percent off its entire menu - one percent for each year they’ve owned the place - and a slick new T-shirt for sale.

Ever since, it’s been a wild ride, one that looks, tastes and smells just like a cheese chilito, the menu item that has been, hands down, the customer favorite. (OK, maybe the ride didn’t actually smell like a chilito, but we’re speaking figuratively, here, and in that respect, the top-selling item at a restaurant that has for years chugged along profitably even with another, better-known quick-serve Mexican food restaurant literally just a few feet away, the reference is an apt one.)

Zantigo, which was Zapata before that, was owned by Jeff Fowler, who knew how much the little joint meant to the scores of high school and college students who frequented the place. So when he went to sell, the Ottos said, he hoped to do so in a way that wouldn’t let down the customer base.

He offered it to his store manager and his wife, and they ran with it, changing the name to Zanz, which is what all the young people called it anyway.

Everything at Zanz is made from scratch, and by the time Otto and Simmonds purchased it, Marie knew the recipes.

“We still do it all from scratch,” Marie said.

She and Rick are semi-retired at this point. Their children Molly and Wesley run the place now. Still, they’re around.

“We’re out of the day-to-day stuff,” Rick said, “but we had to come in and close last Sunday.”

Johns and chilitos

If you’re unfamiliar with Zanz’s location, imagine you’re a locally owned mom and pop restaurant making a good living and, right next door, a popular (and also locally owned, by the way) chain store selling very similar fare opens up right next to you, a chain store that benefits from national advertising, branding and name recognition.

That happened to Zantigo when a Taco John’s opened right next door.

“Fowler was worried,” Rick said. “But if anything it helped us; we’d get their overflow.”

Plus, they had a secret weapon, one rolled up in a tortilla and stuffed with refried beans and spices. It’s called a chilito, and it’s always been the most popular item on the Zanz menu.

Why?

“I keep telling people it’s the cocaine we put in ‘em,” Rick joked. At least, we think he’s joking. They’ll never divulge the recipe to that one.

Marie has another answer to why they’ve sold so many chilitos.

“We have quality food and ingredients,” she said. “And we make everything on site. And people can tell.”

The couple says they hear stories from friends who lament that, when their own children return to Mankato from wherever they live, their time in Mankato begins not with a quick stop home to give Mom and Dad a hug, but with a stop at Zanz to get a cheese chilito in their mouth.

“I really enjoy reading about that online,” Rick said.

Tom and Sandy Baynes are at Zanz literally every day of the week.

“The food is good all the time,” Sandy says, smiling. “And it’s good for a hangover. And they make their own shells.”

She’s joking about the hangover part. Well, mostly.

The couple comes daily for the food, yes, but also because they like the people who work there. They know all their names and they like the fact that the restaurant’s interior hasn’t changed since the day it was built. If you went there 30 years ago (or more, like in the Zantigo or Zapata eras) the booth you sat in that day is still there, still yellow, still has the same angle and curve you’d expect from a booth built in the 1970s.

The Bayneses like their routine, and the way Zanz fits into it.

“We’ll watch ‘The Price is Right’ from 10-11 and then I’ll say, ‘Am I cooking or are we going to Zanz?’” Sandy says. The answer is usually the latter.

Same for Donna Burgess. She’s been coming to Zanz about twice a week for as long as Otto and Simmonds have owned it. Her order doesn’t change much, and the chilito is almost always in the mix.

When they see her car pull in, Burgess’ chilito hits the grill.

“I’m a preferred customer,” she jokes. “They all know me. I help them train in the new people.”

Burgess says Zanz has a special place in her entire family. She and her mother used to come every Tuesday when her mother was able. And when her sister comes to visit from Sioux Falls, she leaves with a box of uncooked chilitos, because, yes, the chilito’s popularity is such that Zanz makes them available to travel long distances, or to be shipped across the country.

___

Information from: The Free Press, https://www.mankatofreepress.com

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